Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Paul’s Haircut and Vow (Acts 18:18)

The first mission to Corinth was not easy, involving resistance, antagonism, hardship, and fears.1 Nevertheless, after at least eighteen grueling months of the Lord working through the faithful efforts of Paul, Silas, Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla, a community of Christ followers stood in this predominantly pagan city (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1). When Paul and his fellow-tentmaking coworkers left Corinth, they briefly stopped in the city’s southeastern seaport of Cenchrea, where Paul cut the hairs of his head, probably cut short (keírō) rather than completely shaved (zuráō),as part of a vow he had taken (Acts 18:18).

In ancient Judaism there were certain customs, rituals, and ceremonies involving the removal of one’s hair,
3 perhaps most notably the Nazarite vow (Num. 6:1-21). However, Paul’s haircut at Cenchrea was unlikely connected to the Nazarite vow, which would have required the burning of the hair in the presence of a priest in the Jerusalem temple. In ancient Judaism there were any number of personal vows or solemn pledges to God any Jewish person could make, which were entirely voluntary albeit regulated (Deut. 23:21-23). 

Even though Paul, as a Christian, was free from the Law of Moses, he was still an ethnic Jew and maintained certain aspects of his cultural heritage (Acts 16:3; 21:20-24; 22:17; 28:17; 1 Cor. 9:20). Moreover, the transition from old covenant Judaism to Christ’s new covenant system was not instantaneous but involved the gradual unfolding of divine revelation until the New Testament was completed. Paul, as a Jewish Christian, lived during this transitional period. His vow and haircut at Cenchrea, perhaps in response to the Lord’s providential protection in Corinth, were indicative of his background and ethnic heritage rather than his Christian faith.

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 Acts 18:6, 9-10, 12-17; 1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 1:5-6, 19; 1 Thess. 3:7; 2 Thess. 3:2.

     2 Note the distinction in 1 Corinthians 11:6. The verbal keírō conveys the sense of “shear” or “cut short” (Acts 8:32; 18:18; 1 Cor. 11:6), while zuráō means to completely “shave” (Acts 21:24; 1 Cor. 11:5-6); compare Ezek. 44:20. Because of the somewhat awkward and ambiguous word order in the Greek text of Acts 18:18, a number of commentators claim that it was Aquila who had taken the vow and had his hair removed.

     3 Lev. 13:33; 14:8-9; Num. 8:7; Deut. 21:12; Jer. 7:29; Ezek. 5:1; 44:20; Mic. 1:16; Acts 21:24.


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Wednesday, 22 December 2021

An In-depth Look at the Hagar-Sarah Allegory of Galatians 4:21-31 (Part 3 of 3)

Children of Promise

The apostle continues, “for it has been written: ‘Be glad, barren, the one not bearing, break forth and shout, the one not laboring; because many are the children of the desolate rather than of the one having the husband.’ But you, brothers, are children of promise according to Isaac” (Gal. 4:27-28).1

Here Isaiah 54:1 is quoted (presumably from the LXX),2 only one of the two scriptural citations in Galatians (also Hab. 2:4 in 3:11) that is not from the Pentateuch. This passage, in its original context, is far removed from the Sarah-Hagar story and might be regarded by some as an extraneous proof-text (cf. G. L. Borchert, Galatians CBC 312). However, Paul, instead of relating this passage to the Sarah-Hagar narrative, is rather augmenting his point of v. 26 that “the Jerusalem above is free, who is our mother.” In Isaiah 54:1 the Israelites in Babylonian exile, forsaken by God and separated from their homeland, are likened to a woman estranged from her husband and thus without children. The good news, according to the prophecy, is that Israel is to be redeemed, with her progeny ultimately surpassing that of her pre-exilic status.     

The crux of Isaiah’s message, being adapted here by Paul, is that the assured prosperity of God’s people after captivity would not be the result of their own initiative and hard work. Their seemingly hopeless situation in exile was to be reversed by the grace, power, and providence of God, far exceeding anything that might be accomplished on their own. It is noteworthy that the book of Isaiah is replete with messianic prophecies, and chap. 54 immediately follows one of the clearest messianic sections of the entire book (52:10–53:12).If the Galatians want to receive the immeasurable blessings that God has in store for them, it will not be through some ill-advised allegiance to “the current Jerusalem” (symbolizing slavery under legalistic Judaism) but by participation in “the Jerusalem above” (the Christian’s focal point),4 “who is our mother” (see v. 26; cf. 4:19).  

With the first person plural (“our”), Paul includes himself in this latter group. Then, making direct application to his readers with second person address (“you”) and the affectionate adelphoí (“brothers”), he reminds them of already being, without corporeal lineage or circumcision, “children of promise according to Isaac” (cf. 2:16-21; 3:7-14, 22-29; 4:1-7, 19). “The household of Abraham is the prototype of the church of God…. Ishmael’s and Isaac’s birth represent the two attitudes towards the promise: that of human self-vindication and that of faith” (H. N. Ridderbos, Epistle to Galatia NICNT 181).

Physical Vs. Spiritual Birth

“But even as then the one born according to flesh persecuted the one according to spirit, so also now. But what says the scripture? ‘Cast out the maidservant and her son; for by no means shall the son of the maidservant inherit with the son of the free woman.’ Therefore, brothers, we are not children of a maidservant but of the free woman” (Gal. 4:29-31).

Paul alludes to the account in Genesis 21:9 and then quotes Genesis 21:10.5 The one born “according to flesh” is Ishmael (cf. v. 23), whose birth was the consequence of human initiative as opposed to the purpose of God. The one “according to spirit” is Isaac, whose birth resulted from divine planning and intercession. There is a repeated contrast in Galatians between the spiritual and the physical (3:2-5, 14; 4:6-7, 23-31; 5:5, 13, 16-25; 6:1, 8, 12-15), and five times Paul explicitly makes a distinction between pneûma (“spirit”) and sárx (“flesh”)(3:3; 4:29; 5:16, 17; 6:8). In Galatians, the term sárx (“flesh”) is used with various interrelated nuances to convey that which is merely human (1:16; 2:16) or entirely physical (2:20; 4:13, 14; 6:12, 13), by extension what is done by human effort (3:3; 4:23, 29), and then in an ethical sense (5:13, 16, 17, 19, 24; 6:8). A connection to the meritorious observance of works of the law (3:3; cf. 5:13; 6:8), and circumcision in particular (6:12-13), is apparent.  

In this new epoch Israel is less like Isaac (the child of promise) and more like Ishmael (the slave child). And by clear implication, the law belongs to the passé, fleshly column. Or to be more precise, the law which the Galatians wanted to be under (4.21) belongs to the inferior column. To want to be under the law is to want to go back to an incomplete and misunderstood phase of God’s purpose, to want to be a child kata sarka [‘according to flesh’] and not kata pneuma [‘according to spirit’]. (J. D. G. Dunn,Theology of Paul 147; cf. A. S. Kulikovsky, “Paul’s View of the Law” 4)

The one “according to flesh,” Paul says, “persecuted” the one “according to spirit.” The account in Gen. 21:9 suggests that Ishmael did little more than verbally deride young Isaac, and while Paul may have been aware of more sinister activity,7 he probably uses a stronger term to make the connection with the current situation he is addressing. “Because they were Christians, Paul showed the Galatians that they were already in the promise-tradition and were therefore subject to persecution or intimidation by those from the slave-tradition like Ishmael – a group that implicitly included the Judaizing teachers” (G. L. Borchert, Galatians CBC 312).  

Genesis 21:10 is quoted to support what the apostle has been arguing all along,8 viz. that anyone characterized by human-centered, meritorious effort cannot share in the inheritance that has been promised to the ones exhibiting God-centered faith (see 3:10). While the admonition to “cast out the maidservant and her son” is part of the quoted text, Paul does not make particular application of these words here. It is probably reading too much into his argument to suggest that he is calling for the expulsion of the Judaizers,9 or the rejection of Judaism,10 or getting rid of the old covenant.11 The only explicit conclusion he draws from this passage is as follows: “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of a maidservant but of the free woman.” 


The essence of Paul’s argument is aptly summarized by T. D. Gordon:

the curious allegory of Sarah and Hagar illustrates Paul’s redemptive-historical evaluation of the temporary role of Torah…. Both in the original patriarchal narrative and in Paul’s day, the issue is God’s extraordinary capacity to fulill his promises and the willingness of some to recognize when he has done so. Both in the original narrative and in Paul’s day, there is competition, even jealousy, regarding who has the rights of inheritance. When by God’s extraordinary working he fulfills his promise, the first child should graciously embrace and welcome the child born of promise…. The ‘present Jerusalem,’ which has enjoyed exclusive privileges until the age of promise has arrived, must now welcome the Gentiles or exclude herself from the blessings of co-inheritance. The problem for those who observe Torah is that Torah excludes the Gentiles by circumcision, calendar, and Kashrut [Jewish dietary laws, KLM]. It excludes those to whom the promise has now come. This is why it is so inadequate as an identity symbol in the age of fulfillment. (“Problem at Galatia” 41-42)

Whether or not we ever face the same kind of challenges as the first-century churches of Galatia, living for Christ in any age is not easy and being faithful to him is always expected. The lesson to learn from Paul’s enigmatic Hagar-Sarah Allegory is that God keeps his word and there will always be those who dismiss and challenge the ones striving to please him according to the full revelation of his will. Let us be among the faithful.

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation. The second person humeîs … esté has strong MSS support; the first person reading of the TR may have been influenced by vv. 26 and 31. See B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary (2nd ed.) 528; G. L. Borchert, Galatians CBC 310.

     2 See E. E. Ellis, Paul’s Use of the OT 119-20, 150-52. This quotation is in agreement with the LXX against the Hebrew text.

     3 K. H. Jobes relates Paul’s use of Isa. 54:1 to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which would transform Jerusalem (the barren one) into the faithful mother-city (see “Jerusalem, Our Mother” 313-15; cf. R. B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture 120).

     4 “It is no mere change of status of which Paul speaks in such metaphors. It is a real deliverance from something which denies free play to the human will to good. Yet it is not the attainment of that ‘unchartered freedom’ which means bondage to ‘chance desires.’ On the other side, it means entering into a new allegiance” (C. H. Dodd, Meaning of Paul 117).

     5 This quote is at variance with the LXX (slightly) and the Hebrew text where they agree (E. E. Ellis, Paul’s Use of the OT 150-52). Paul adapts the passage to the situation in Galatia by changing the words “my son Isaac” to “the son of the free woman” (see J. B. Lightfoot, Epistles of St Paul: Galatians 184; R. N. Longenecker, Galatians WBC 41:217).

     6 Most standard English versions correctly render the term sárx as “flesh” (ESV, CSB, N/ASV, N/KJV, N/RSV, etc.). However, some translations betray a Calvinistic bias with interpretive renderings such as “sinful nature” (e.g., NIV, NLT). For a brief review of other idiomatic translation attempts, see R. N. Longenecker, Galatians WBC 41:239-40). 

     7 There was a later rabbinical tradition that Ishmael bore down on young Isaac with a bow and arrow, but it is doubtful this is what Paul has in mind (see H. N. Ridderbos, Epistle to Galatia NICNT 181 n. 12).

     8 Paul attributes this passage to what “the scripture” says, even though the words in their original setting were spoken by Sarah. The Lord goes on to sanction this pronouncement (Gen. 21:12), which is then recorded in the sacred writings as an authoritative scriptural declaration (cf. H. N. Ridderbos, Epistle to Galatia NICNT 182). Gen. 21:10 may have already been introduced by the Judaizers to justify the exclusion of Gentiles and/or of Paul, so he turns it back on them to affirm that “legal bondage and spiritual freedom cannot coexist” (F. F. Bruce, Galatians NIGTC 225; cf. R. N. Longenecker, Galatians WBC 41: 217). 

     9 J. M. Boice, Galatians EBC 10: 485; G. L. Borchert, Galatians CBC 312; J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Galatians 97; R. N. Longenecker, Galatians WBC 41: 217. 

     10 H. D. Betz, Galatians 251; E. D. W. Burton, Galatians 267-68.

     11 D. J. Moo, R. P. Martin, and J. L. Wu, Romans Galatians 123-24; cf. J. B. Lightfoot, Epistles of St Paul: Galatians 184.


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Image credit: Adriaen van der Werff, Die Verstoßung der Hagar, adapted from

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

An In-depth Look at the Hagar-Sarah Allegory of Galatians 4:21-31 (Part 2 of 3)

The Tale of Two Covenants

The apostle continues: “for these are two covenants, one indeed from Mount Sinai, bringing forth into slavery, which is Hagar. But Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the current Jerusalem, for she serves as a slave with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, who is our mother”1 (Gal. 4:24b-26).

Paul uses these two sons and their respective circumstances (vv. 22-24a) to illustrate “two covenants.” One covenant is said to be “from Mount Sinai,” which is an obvious allusion to the post-exodus covenant God made in the Sinai Wilderness with the Israelites (Ex. 19:1-8; Deut. 5:1-22).2 The other covenant, represented by Isaac, would then correspond to the original covenant that God made with Abraham (see 3:15, 17) and ultimately fulfilled in the “new covenant” of Jesus Christ (see 3:15-29; also Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:6-13; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6-16).   

Interestingly, when the covenant at Sinai was originally instituted, it was in the context of Israel having just been delivered from slavery. This covenant, therefore, including the accompanying requirements of the law, served as a symbol of emancipation for the Jews (S. C. Keesmaat, Paul and His Story 186-87). But now, Paul maintains, the situation is reversed. These same ordinances, rather than epitomizing freedom, are presently the occasion of bondage (cf. 2:4). Not only had God’s purpose for old-covenant Judaism been fulfilled (3:19–4:7),3 but misguided Jews were misconstruing the divine purpose and advocating an inordinate reliance on ceremonial works of the law (cf. 3:10; 4:9, 21).

Mount Sinai in Arabia?

What is to be made of Paul’s reference to “Mount Sinai in Arabia” (Gal. 4:25)? Since he spent time in “Arabia” (1:17), is he now pinpointing the geographical location of the literal mountain? Scholars have debated this question for centuries, with no less than thirteen different places having been identified (see M. Har-el, The Sinai Journeys 2). The traditional “Mt. Sinai” is Jebel Musa in the southern Sinai Peninsula, but other plausible locations around the general region, including as far east as Jebel el Lawz in Saudi Arabia, have been claimed.4 Nevertheless, it is illegitimate to appeal to the apostle’s statement in Gal. 4:25 as a definitive geographical marker, if for no other reason than the ancient territorial definition of “Arabia” encompassed a vast region inclusive of all the alleged sites.5

The important thing to remember is that Paul is using figures of speech. He says that “Hagar is Mount Sinai,” an indirect allusion to the old-covenant system established at Sinai (cf. v. 24). As the real-life Hagar was the mother of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, it is informative to consider the genealogical record of Hagar and Ishmael as documented in the 25th chapter of Genesis, especially since Paul’s knowledge of the Hagar-Ishmael story included Gen. 25 (cf. Rom. 9:12). “Now this is the genealogy of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Abraham …. They [Ishmael’s descendants] dwelt from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt as you go toward Assyria” (Gen. 25:12-18, NKJV). 

According to C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch: “Havilah and Shur … formed the south-eastern and south-western boundaries of the territories of the Ishmaelites, from which they extended their nomadic excursions towards the N.E. as far as the districts under Assyrian rule, i.e., to the lands of the Euphrates, traversing the whole of the desert of Arabia” (Biblical Commentary 1:265). Josephus reports that the descendants of Ishmael “inhabited all the country from Euphrates to the Red Sea, and called it Nabatene. They are an Arabian nation, and name their tribes from these, both because of their own virtue, and because of the dignity of Abraham their father” (Ant. 1.12.4). 

A. Schweitzer is probably correct in concluding that the relation between Hagar and Sinai, whether geographical or linguistic, “is no longer intelligible to us” (Mysticism of Paul 211). But the point that Paul is making is crystal clear. Irrespective of what Mt. Sinai may have symbolized in the past, it is now emblematic of servitude. Ishmael stands for Judaism and corresponds to the present Jerusalem (the center of the Jewish religious system). Words like “shocking,” “offensive,”  “astonishing,” “surprising,” “amazing,” “extraordinary,” and “radical” have been used by commentators to describe Paul’s controversial assessment and the reaction it would have provoked among his fellow Jews.6 J. M. Boice offers this helpful analysis:

On the most superficial level, Isaac and Ishmael were alike in that both were sons of Abraham. But on a more fundamental level they were entirely different. In the same way, Paul argues, it is not enough merely to claim Abraham as one’s father. Both Christians and Jews did that. The question is: Who is our mother and in what way were we born? If Hagar is our mother, then we were born of purely human means and are still slaves. If our mother is Sarah, then the birth was by promise, and we are free men. (Galatians EBC 484)  

Physical Vs. Spiritual Jerusalem

It is of interest that “Jerusalem” is spelt differently in 4:25 and 26 than it was in 1:17-18 and 2:1. The previous spelling is Hierosóluma, the common designation identifying the city geographically. Here the spelling is Ierousalēm, the Hebraic form of the LXX that connotes the sacred status of the city. “Evidently in 1:17-18 and 2:1 Paul had simply the geographical site in mind. Here, however, particularly in antithesis to hē ánō Ierousalēm (‘the Jerusalem that is above’) of v26, his emphasis is on the religious significance of the city: the present city of Jerusalem to which the Judaizers looked as the source and support of their gospel” (R. N. Longenecker, Galatians [WBC 41] 213; see also G. L. Borchert, Galatians CBC 310). Paul’s analogy is obviously targeting the judaizing troublemakers. “To them Paul declared that their Jerusalem was a slave city, bound hand and foot to an obsolete tradition” (C. H. Dodd, Meaning of Paul 49).  

Although “the current Jerusalem” is being contrasted with “the Jerusalem above,” rather than the latter being restricted to a future expectation, it is spoken of here as a present reality. “By this other Jerusalem Paul means not merely the assembly of those who have left the earthly struggle to enter heaven: he means also the central point from which believers are gathered, nourished, and governed, and the manner in which all this takes place” (H. N. Ridderbos, Epistle to Galatia NICNT 178). Note Paul’s emphasis throughout Galatians on the spiritual (heavenly) focus of genuine Christianity versus the physical (earthly) impetus of legalistic Judaism (1:4, 6-17, 23; 2:1-6, 11-21; 3:1-29; 4:1-12; etc.).  The “Jerusalem above,” void of ethnic or geographic boundaries, is elsewhere portrayed in the NT in Heb. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:11-14; Rev. 3:12; 11:8; 21:2, 9-27.

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 In some witnesses, adopted by the TR, pántōn (“all”) is inserted before hēmōn (“of us”), although the above reading has strong support (see B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 528; G. Zuntz, Text of the Epistles 223). Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author's own translation.

     2 Contra J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 146 n. 94; cf. Galatians 249-50.

     3 See also 2:16; 2 Cor. 3:14; Col. 2:14; Heb. 7:12, 18; 8:13; 10:1, 9 (and their respective contexts).

     4 See Gordon Franz, “Is Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia?” in the Associates for Biblical Research’s Bible and Spade (rev. 19 March 2001), <Link>.

     5 The Nabatean kingdom was called “Arabia” by the Romans, and its boundaries, while fluctuating during the Middle Nabatean period (30 BC – AD 70), appear to have included what is today known as the Sinai, the Negev, the east side of the Jordan Valley, much of Jordan, and part of Saudi Arabia; at times it incorporated Damascus and the cities of the Decapolis.

     6 “It should be clear, however, that the theological rationale behind it has nothing to do with anti-Judaism, let alone anti-semitism; Paul speaks as a Jew of the significance of the life, death and resurrection of another Jew…. The extremeness of the argument probably derives from the fact that Paul was responding to the other missionaries at this point” (J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Galatians 95-96).


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Image credit: Edward Lear, Mount Sinai, adapted from 

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

An In-depth Look at the Hagar-Sarah Allegory of Galatians 4:21-31 (Part 1 of 3)

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as he makes a case for the truth of the gospel and the fallacy of seeking justification through works of the Mosaic law,he writes: “Tell me, the ones wishing to be under [the] law, are you not hearing the law?” (Gal. 4:21).2

The heated tenor implied in the previous verse is more evident here, as Paul specifically addresses “the ones wishing to be under [the] law” (cf. 3:10; 4:4-5). He has been quoting from the OT (3:6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16) and has appealed to the law to confirm that those who are characterized by its works are under “a curse” (3:10). He now asks, “are you not hearing the law?” As H. N. Ridderbos points out: “There is a touch of irony here …. whoever reads the whole of the Torah will discover that its bearing is quite different from the one the Galatians are apparently at present inclined to believe” (Epistle to Galatia NICNT 173).  

The Hagar-Sarah Allegory 

Paul continues: “for it has been written that Abraham had two sons, one out of the maidservant and one out of the free woman. But the one indeed out of the maidservant has been born according to flesh, and the one out of the free woman through the promise, which is being allegorized …” (Gal. 4:22-24a).  

The gégraptai formula (“it has been written”) normally prefaces a direct quote from scripture (cf. 3:10, 13; 4:27), but here it begins a summary and exposition of Gen. 16:1-16 and 21:1-12 (cf. Gen. 15:5; 17:15-19). There has been much discussion about the way in which Paul makes application of this biblical narrative, and J. M. Boice acknowledges: “Commentators are sometimes embarrassed because Paul’s doctrinal argument in the central two chapters of Galatians concludes with an allegory based on what they consider an unjustified use of an OT story” (Galatians EBC 10:482).  

J. C. Beker speaks of “Paul’s complicated” and “abstruse” argument (Heirs of Paul 107), which T. D. Gordon calls “the curious allegory” (“Problem at Galatia” 41). Having described this hermeneutical approach as “a far cry from a contemporary literal-historical method” that does not seem to be “the best way of interpreting Scripture,” G. L. Borchert goes on to mention “Paul’s unusual symbolic equations” (Galatians CBC 311). In discussing what he considers “the somewhat arbitrary manner in which [Paul] occasionally extracts meaning from scriptural texts,” B. Longenecker describes the apostle’s exposition with comments like, “his interpretation is somewhat imaginative …. it has been significantly dislodged from its original narrative context …. interpretive freedom …. It is more like a call to re-image the scriptural text in accord with prior Pauline convictions …. this playful reconfiguration of the scriptural story …. his rather creative readings of scripture …. lack of exegetical rigour” (“Galatians,” in St Paul 71-72).3

While the issue is admittedly problematic, in order to address it fairly, two very important questions need to be considered. First, why was this particular account chosen? Second, how is Paul actually using it? The first thing to notice is the way in which the gégraptai formula (“it has been written”) is employed. There is a conspicuous departure from its standard Pauline usage, viz. of introducing direct scriptural quotations (see E. E. Ellis, Paul’s Use of the OT 48-49, 156-85). Further, the unorthodox manner with which the story is treated ought to alert us that something out of the ordinary is taking place.

Instead of Paul having selected the narrative as a central argument, it is not implausible that the account had been introduced to the Galatians by the judaizers in order to support their assertion that Abraham’s inheritance comes through the fleshly lineage of Isaac, with the accompanying requisite of circumcision (see 3:6-7; note C. K. Barrett, “The Allegory of Abraham,” in Essays on Paul 118-31). Accordingly, J. D. G. Dunn observes:

Paul’s allegory is therefore most likely intended as a response to the argument of the other missionaries. That is to say, the purpose was to remove it from the armoury of the other missionaries, not as a primary expression of his own theology; to disarm the other missionaries by demonstrating how the same episode in sacred scripture could be read in a way completely opposed to the other missionaries’ gospel. That is why, presumably, it comes at the end of his main argument, as a kind of addendum to it, rather than as a principal part of his own argument; it was not intended as a plank in his own platform…. This is the language of polemic … rather than sober theological argument. (Theology of Galatians 96-97, cf. 122-24)4

Interpretation or Illustration?

Another question concerns what Paul actually does with the Sarah-Hagar story. He uses the term allēgoréō (“speak allegorically”) to describe what he is doing (v. 24). Consequently, a number of interpreters have been quick to equate this with “the allegorical method of exposition, loved by Philo and the Alexandrian school of exegetes” (D. Coggan, Paul: Portrait of a Revolutionary 117).5 Hellenistic Jews borrowed from Greek philosophy this hermeneutical approach, a “mythical interpretation” (BAGD 39) that seeks to draw out assumed “spiritual” meanings from biblical narratives. However, the term allēgoréō (its only occurrence here in the NT) is a broad expression that should not be limited to the technical sense of the English word “allegorize.” There are much greater differences than similarities between the respective hermeneutics of Philo and Paul, as a comparison of the two bodies of literature clearly shows (see M. Silva, “Old Testament in Paul,” in DPL 635-36).6

E. E. Ellis rightly states: “The similarity of Pauline allegory to that of the Jewish world depends on the definition of the word. Taken merely as an extended metaphor (as contrasted with the parable or extended simile),7 the method is employed by the apostle in connexion with a divinely designed type or with the illustrative use of an OT passage” (Paul’s Use of the OT 51). 

Note, for example, that when Paul began his sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, he alluded to an altar inscribed with the phrase, “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). In so doing he was certainly not suggesting that the original aim of the inscription’s author was to reveal the truth about the monotheistic God of the Bible. Paul merely used these words as a starting point and for the purpose of illustration. When he went on in v. 28 to quote Athenian poets, even though the statements in their initial setting applied to Zeus, the apostle simply borrowed the terminology to reinforce his message, with no intention of offering a commentary on the original intent of the expressions. Likewise, by employing the Sarah-Hagar narrative, Paul’s objective was not to explicate some hidden, allegorical meaning from the story. He does not claim that the historical account was written allegorically (as, e.g., Psa. 80:8-13; Eccl. 12:2-6), but rather he is treating it allegorically (cf. J. M. Boice, Galatians EBC 485 n.). The details of the narrative simply corresponded to the points he was seeking to make. Thus, the Holman CSB renders v. 24, “These things are illustrations …”8

Although in the end Abraham had more than just two sons (Gen. 26:1-6), for the purpose of the argument Paul is focusing only on the first two, with particular concern for whom the rightful heir is. The “maidservant” is Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-16), and the “free woman” is Sarah, who gave birth to Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3). That Ishmael was born katà sárka (“according to flesh”) simply means that his conception was the result of human initiative apart from God’s plan (cf. v. 29).9 It was Isaac who was always meant to be the son of “the promise” (see Gen. 17:15-21; 18:9-14).

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 Galatians 4:21–5:1 continues a number of themes that were introduced earlier in the letter, viz. “giving birth (3:19), slavery (3:8), freedom (3:25), Abraham (3:6-8, 16-18, 29), the promise (3:14, 18, 21-22, 29), sonship (4:5-7), a covenant (cf. 3:15), persecution of believers in Christ by Jews (1:13), and inheritance (3:18; 4:1-7)” (L. A. Jervis, Galatians [NIBC] 122).

     2 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.

     3 Longenecker’s critical evaluation is actually a misrepresentation of Paul’s use of scripture, as he charges the apostle with trying to convince his readers that the allegorical interpretation “is what scripture actually ‘says’ (4:21, 30) …” (“Galatians,” in St Paul 72). But neither in v. 21 nor in v. 30 does Paul allude to the Sarah-Hagar story. In v. 21 he speaks of the law in general, and in v. 30 he quotes from the book of Isaiah.  

     4 This conclusion is much more reasonable than the proposal of many commentators that “Paul has saved this part of his argument for purposes of climax and capstone” (H. N. Ridderbos, Epistle to Galatia NICNT 173; cf. J. M. Boice, Galatians EBC 10:482). See also J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 146-47; R. N. Longenecker, Galatians WBC 41:212.

     5 “Paul reverts to an argument from scriptural exegesis, employing an allegorical method familiar in Philo” (D. J. Moo, R. P. Martin, and J. L. Wu, Romans Galatians 122). “This he treats in the allegorical interpretative style of popular Hellenistic philosophy” (M. L. Soards, The Apostle Paul 63).

     6 As J. M. Boice notes, “how far removed [Paul] is from the totally unrestricted and fanciful use of allegory by such a writer as Philo. In Philo’s case, the allegory is the important thing. In Paul’s case, the allegory is secondary to the historical sense” (Galatians EBC 485 n.). See also J. B. Lightfoot, Epistles of St Paul: Galatians 198-200. 

     7 A simile is a figure of speech by which something is “likened” to something else (e.g. Isa. 53:6, “All we like sheep have gone astray”). A metaphor substitutes one word for another to more vividly express it (e.g. John 1:29, “Behold the lamb of God”). A parable is a supposed history, whereas an allegory is a figurative application of real facts (see D. R. Duncan, Hermeneutics 246-70; also K. L. Moore, Getting to Know the Bible 74-78). 

     8 The word allēgoréō in v. 24 is variously rendered: “figurative” (NIV), “symbolic” (NKJV), “picture” (ERV), “example” (SEB); see also A. T. Hanson, Studies in Paul’s Technique and Theology 94-95; D. J. Moo, R. P. Martin, and J. L. Wu, Romans Galatians 123. Further, note that the term sustoichéō in v. 25, which literally means to “stand in the same line,” is used here in the sense of “correspond” (BAGD 795; cf. G. Delling, TDNT 7:669), i.e., corresponds to in application rather than represents in meaning.

     9 Notice Paul’s frequent use in Galatians (in every chapter) of the term sárx (“flesh”): 1:16; 2:16, 20; 3:3; 4:13, 14, 23, 29; 5:13, 16, 17, 19, 24; 6:8, 12, 13.


Related PostsHagar-Sarah Allegory Part 2Part 3


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Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Replenishing the Earth and Ancient Human Remains?

According to the ASV and KJV translations, God instructed Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth …” (Gen. 1:28, emp. added KLM), with the same directive given to Noah and his sons (9:1). Since the word “replenish” essentially means “populate again,” does this indicate a cycle of human races being created and proliferating, destroyed, then God starting over again? Would this explain the discovery of human remains tens of thousands of years old?

The Hebrew verb in these texts is mala, meaning to “fill.” The same word is also used in Gen. 1:22; 6:11, 13; 21:19; 24:16; etc. The KJV and the ASV render it “replenish” in Gen. 1:28 and 9:1, whereas most other English versions consistently employ the word “fill,” including the New King James Version and New American Standard Bible (revisions of these older works). No cyclical rise and destruction and replacement of human races is explicitly revealed in scripture, only the creation, the flood, and the future judgment.

As for the discovery of human remains dated older than 10,000 years, radiocarbon dating works on the assumption that rates of carbon production and decay have remained consistent for thousands if not millions of years (uniformitarianism). But this is an unprovable assumption and, in my opinion, improbable. Environmental factors, such as instantaneous creation, a catastrophic flood, centuries of volcanic eruptions and forest fires, pollution, et al., would significantly disrupt alleged environmental constancy. Assumptions have to be made about starting points and conditions in the distant past, as well as decay rates through the ages, guided by evolutionary presuppositions. Antitheistic scientists tend to speak definitively about the age of humans and the age of the universe, but not everyone shares their presuppositions or blindly trusts their conclusions. 

I side with the psalmist’s appraisal of divine revelation, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psalm 119:160 NKJV).

--Kevin L. Moore


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Wednesday, 24 November 2021

If Jesus is God, to whom did he pray?

This question was asked of an incarcerated brother in Christ by a fellow inmate attempting to challenge his faith. The brother requested help with a simple response to what appears to be a perplexing issue. The question itself, when asked in a disparaging and condescending manner, demonstrates a misconception of the God of the Bible. The idea of “God” as a solitary entity or single mathematical unit is overly simplistic, as if he were a cartoonish white bearded old man in the clouds. It would be comparable to asking, if Kevin is man (human) and his father is man (human), how can man speak to man?

In Acts 17:29 “God” is described as to theion, an expression referring to everything that belongs to the nature of God and is variously rendered “the Divine Nature,” “the Godhead,” “the Deity,” “the Divine,” “the Divinity” (cf. Rom. 1:20; Col. 2:9; 2 Pet. 1:2-4). The human equivalent would be “man” in the sense of “human nature,” “human race,” “humanity,” or “mankind.” Just like the word “man” can be used to describe either an individual (Rom. 5:12) or all persons who comprise the human race (Psa. 8:4), the word “God” is used similarly. The Bible clearly affirms there is only one true God (1 Cor. 8:4; Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; etc.), and since God is the Divine Nature, there is only one Divine Nature. 


Seeing that the word “man” doesn’t imply that humanity is comprised of a single person, the fundamental question is whether or not the Bible indicates a plurality within the one God. The Unitarian concept of God is a single divine personage, while the Trinitarian concept is one God (the Divine Nature) consisting of three distinct personages (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) in perfect unity. In Gen. 1:26 God speaks of himself using plural pronouns: “us,” “our” (cf. 3:22; 11:7). What does this indicate about God? The Hebrew word translated “God” in Gen. 1:1-31; 2:2-22; 3:1-23, etc. is elohim (the plural form of el), found 2,570 times in the Hebrew scriptures. This plural form, in reference to Almighty God, is used with singular verbs and adjectives throughout the OT, more clearly revealed in the NT. 


In Matt. 28:19 the plurality within the one God (Divine Nature) is identified as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Since “name” in this verse is singular, a unity among these three is presumed (see also Mark 1:9-11; Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6). Though mentioned here collectively, elsewhere the Father is acknowledged as “God” (Phil. 2:11), Jesus is acknowledged as “God” (John 1:1; 20:28), the Holy Spirit is implicitly acknowledged as “God” (Acts 5:3-4). Nevertheless, the biblical doctrine of monotheism forbids the conclusion that there are three separate gods and therefore requires a unity of these three divine Persons as one God or a single Divine Nature. In John 17:20-23 a plurality of human persons is depicted as “one,” providing a parallel to the similar concept of a plurality of divine Persons depicted as “one” (see also Gen. 2:24; 11:6; Judg. 6:16; John 10:16, 30; 11:52; 17:11; Acts 17:26; 1 Cor. 12:12). 


Jesus, as God (equal member of the Godhead, possessing the divine nature), willingly took on human nature and flesh—the incarnation (John 1:1-14), thereby placing himself in subordination to God [the Father] (Phil. 2:5-9) to whom he prayed while on earth (John 17:1ff.; etc.). All passages dealing with Christ’s subordination (1 Cor. 11:3; etc.) refer to his role in the flesh but do not detract from his divine essence. The descriptive expression, “the Son of God,” signifies both subordination (of position) and equality (of nature); cf. John 5:17-18; 10:17-33.


Attempting to simplify something as complex as God is quite a challenge. We could begin with a biblical definition of God as “the Divine Nature” (Acts 17:29), comprised of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Jesus became human (John 1:14), and as such he prayed to the heavenly Father (Matt. 26:39). 


--Kevin L. Moore


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Monday, 15 November 2021

If God hates divorce, what about Ezra 9–10?

During the eight decades between the first return from Babylonian exile (538 BC) and the second return (458 BC), Israelite men (including priests) had married local pagan women and were then compelled to put them away with what appears to have been divine approval (Ezra 9–10; cf. Neh. 13:23-30). If God hates divorce, why would this have been sanctioned?

Qualifying Information

Malachi, a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah,1 prophesied to the post-exilic Jews (ca. 450-430 BC), and the biblical record of his message provides enlightening background information. According to Malachi 2:10-17, Jewish men had apparently divorced their lawful spouses to marry these pagan women. In vv. 15-16 Malachi reaffirms that the dissolution of a legitimate marriage is contrary to God’s original plan (cf. Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4-6), and whether the text says God hates divorce (ISV, N/ASV, N/KJV, N/RSV) or a man hates and sends her away (ESV, HCSB, NIV),2 the Lord clearly considers this unconscionable behavior. 

The second chapter of Malachi reveals that these unscriptural divorces and subsequent remarriages weakened the nation and resulted from profane desires (v. 11), involved betraying innocent spouses (v. 14a), broke covenant vows (v. 14b), caused separation from God (vv. 12, 13), and accompanied spiritual self-deception (v. 17). The Lord expects faithfulness and permanence in marriage. “‘For I am Yahweh, I do not change … Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says Yahweh of hosts ” (Mal. 3:6-7).

Harmonizing Ezra and Malachi

In addition to breaking God’s marriage law by divorcing lawful spouses, a number of these post-exilic Jewish men had also disregarded the divine injunction to not intermingle with the pagan inhabitants of the land (Ezra 9:10-14; 10:2, 10, 17, 44). Genuine repentance, therefore, despite some opposition (Ezra 10:15), involved severing these unauthorized relationships (Ezra 10:3-5, 11, 19). 


God hates divorce because he hates sin (Psa. 5:4-5; Prov. 6:16-19; Isa. 6:3; 59:1-2). In the dissolution of a divinely sanctioned marriage, sin is always involved on the part of one party or the other or both. Entering into another sexual relationship with someone else then results in the sin of adultery (Mal. 3:5; Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9), which, like any other sinful conduct, must be discontinued to constitute repentance and to receive God’s gracious forgiveness (Luke 13:3-8; Acts 26:20; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).3

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 Ezra returned to Jerusalem ca. 458 BC to reform the Jewish state, and Nehemiah ca. 453 BC to oversee the rebuilding of the city's walls.

     2 This textual variation is between the Masoretic Hebrew Text, on one hand, and the LXX, Targum, Arabic versions, and Latin Vulgate on the other. 

     3 See Biblical Doctrine of Divorce (Part 1) and accompanying Links.


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Tuesday, 9 November 2021

The “New Name” of Revelation 3:12

The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Rev. 3:12 ESV).

The book of Revelation is filled with terminology and images borrowed from the OT. Isaiah had prophesied that the people of God would be called by “a new name” (Isa. 62:2; 65:15). In the NT the name exalted above all others is that of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:9-11), through whom salvation is granted (Acts 4:12) and the identifying moniker of the new-covenant people of God (Acts 11:26; Jas. 2:7). 

In Revelation 3:12, a message to the first-century church in the Asian city of Philadelphia, Christians are being encouraged to persevere and to overcome the challenges they are facing in order to be established in God’s “temple” (= the church, 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Tim. 3:15), wearing God’s name (1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Tim. 2:19; Rev. 14:1) and the name of God’s city (= the church, Heb. 12:22-23; Rev. 21:2-3; 22:14) and “my new name” (Jesus Christ) – a threefold emphasis identifying and confirming to whom the Lord’s faithful ones belong.

--Kevin L. Moore

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Wednesday, 3 November 2021

Confused by the Book of Revelation?

The Bible makes a distinction between the “milk” and the “solid food” of God’s word (Heb. 5:12-14). The book of Revelation would be in the “meat” category that cannot be understood without a foundational knowledge of the rest of scripture. Before any biblical text says anything to you or me, it has already spoken to those who first received it. 

The book of Revelation is addressed to the seven churches of the first-century Roman province of Asia (1:4, 11; 2:1–3:22), which may also be representative of the problems and needs of all the churches at the time. These Christians were suffering severe and widespread persecution that would eventually worsen (1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4) and were being pressured to worship the secular ruling power (13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). The most likely historical context of this manuscript is toward the end of the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian in the years 95-96.1

The final NT document represents a type of literature known as “apocalyptic,” characterized by highly symbolic language, common during times of great danger or oppression (like Daniel and Ezekiel).2 It was intended to disclose a message of hope, comfort, and reassurance to those being oppressed, while the symbolism hid the actual message from the oppressors. Most of the imagery in Revelation is borrowed from the OT, foreign to those unacquainted with scripture but familiar to these early Christians. 

Any interpretation of the fantastic symbolism that has little or no relevance, meaning, or application to the first-century Asian churches must be mistaken, and the repeated warnings of “what must happen quickly …. for the time is near” (1:1, 3; 22:6, 10)3 would otherwise be misleading. If would-be interpreters have little regard for the immediate audience of any writing, chances are the original sense will be misconstrued and the message misapplied. When the overall context of the Bible is ignored and the book of Revelation is interpreted through human imagination and conjecture, there is no end to the diverse and even absurd explanations of the text.

The theme of Revelation is VICTORY in Jesus (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 12:11; 15:2; 17:14; 21:7), so the essential message continues to encourage all Christians who face similar circumstances.

--Kevin L. Moore


     1 See Introducing the Book of Revelation (Part 2) <Link>.

     2 See Introducing the Book of Revelation (Part 3) <Link>.

     3 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.

Related PostsIntroducing the Book of Revelation (Part 1) <Link>; The New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-5) <Link>; Measuring the Heavenly City (Rev. 21:16) <Link>; The Number 666 (Rev. 13:18) <Link>


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